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Tucson Weekly Cuban Missile

More than a hundred albums later, Tito Puente is still going strong.

By Dave McElfresh

JUNE 15, 1998:  LUCKY FOR THE music world, a torn ankle tendon meant that the young Tito Puente had to give up an anticipated dancing career. Had he not, the stateside influence of Latin music would've been greatly diminished. (For starters, Carlos Santana would've gone without his career-boosting hit, "Oye Como Va," a Puente composition.)

So whaddya do when you can no longer trip the light fantastic? In Puente's case, he learned to play timbales, congas, bongos, saxophone, piano and vibes. He also studied music at Julliard under the G.I. Bill, following his WWII service. Big band music was the thing, and Puente became part of the style's New York scene.

While Cuban big-band jazz projects pursued by beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie were impressive, none were as shimmy-inspiring as Puente's jazz-tinged dance ensembles. His exotic tropical orchestras introduced the mambo and cha-cha-cha to dance partners accustomed to the comparatively stiff and corny output of Glenn Miller's and Artie Shaw's bands. A reviewer from the era stated that Puente's big band "had an intense and nervous quality that was pure New York...His arranging, like his timbales playing, was fast, tight, jumpy, bravura."

As a composer, bandleader and arranger, he either played under or hired nearly every significant name in Afro-Cuban music, including Machito, Mongo Santamaria, Charlie Palmieri, Willie Bobo, Ray Barretto, Cal Tjader and Celia Cruz. The country's interest in big band music, though, was about to fizzle out.

In the first half of the '60s, ethnic divisions in America remained so blatant as to make West Side Story seem like a travelogue. But opposition to American involvement in Vietnam and the love-everybody sensibilities of the psychedelic era leveled many of the walls existing between Latinos and the rest of the country. At the same time, rock and roll ushered out what was left of the big bands, including the Latin mambo orchestras like Puente's. Eventually, New York's Latin ballrooms closed due to lack of interest.

But just as it appeared that Puente had lost his popularity, Santana recorded a faithful version of Puente's "Oye Como Va" on his Abraxas album--still considered by most to be the guitarist's best release. The song became a Top 20 hit on pop radio, introducing millions of non-Latinos to ass-shaking rhythms far more complex than those found in most rock and roll. Santana wisely followed up with a cover of Puente's "Para Los Rumberos" on the band's third album.

Latin pride resurfaced as a parallel to the civil rights movement. New York's young Latinos were heavily affected by the attention stirred up by the Black Panthers, as well as by the "black is beautiful" theme running through the soul music of the late '60s and early '70s. As a result, traditional Cuban/Puerto Rican sounds were shaped into a new street dancing music called salsa. Though Puente had been on the scene for decades, he was considered a primary figure in the new movement--though not without some resistance to the limited categorization: "The only salsa I know comes in a bottle," he said. "I play Cuban music."

Puente has since reconciled himself to the term, and has become a patriarch of the music style often called "the soul of the barrio." Not many musicians, Latin or otherwise, have survived early big band associations to become a figurehead in another major musical movement. It's a well-deserved honor: Puente's percussion-heavy ensembles simultaneously create the ultimate in seductive dance music and proud, unadulterated paeans to Latin heritage--a sizable accomplishment for someone who'd been nicknamed Ernestito (later shortened to Tito) because of his short stature.

Puente's become a permanent presence in a profession that continues to discard one style for another: The bandleader released his 100th album way back in 1991. The Concord/Picante label diligently records classy projects bearing his name, his shows sell out, and damn near every rock fan over the age of 16 can hum his Santana hit. Maybe Castro even bites his cigar when Puente's tunes crank up on Radio Cuba, jealous over the greater influence the unassuming musician has had on U.S. shores.


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